The NBA

March 02, 1992

What's the Deal, Dallas?

As the NBA's Thursday-night trading deadline approached, no team was in a more logical position to make a major deal than the Mavericks. They had two starters to use as trade bait—veteran guards Rolando Blackman and Derek Harper—and a 15-37 record that was as good a reason as any to start rebuilding the team. But when the Mavs finally made a deal, it was to send disgruntled 7'2" center James Donaldson to the Knicks for 6'8" Brian Quinnett, a solid but unspectacular role player. The Hornets and Bullets made the only other trade, Charlotte sending guard Rex Chapman to Washington for forward Tom Hammonds.

So what's the deal with the no-deals? NBA officials cringe when that question is raised, because, invariably, the overly-restrictive rules of the salary cap are blamed. And, to be sure, those rules were a major factor for several teams—the Bulls, Cavaliers, Celtics, Lakers, Pacers, Pistons, Sixers and Sonics—already so far over the cap that player movement was difficult. At least 10 teams whose hands were not tied by the salary cap could have made deals but chose to stand pat for a variety of reasons. Some teams, such as the Warriors, Trail Blazers and Jazz, like their rosters as presently constructed. Others, such as the Magic and Timber-wolves, did not have enough to offer to get something in return.

And then there were the Knicks, who felt they would move up to contender status in the East if only they had a big, physical guard who could wear out Michael Jordan for 40 minutes. Along came the Mavericks with an offer of the 6'6" Black-man, a classic big guard and four-time All-Star, in exchange for third-year guard John Starks and a No. 1 draft pick. The deal was perfectly doable under the salary cap since the Knicks were under their cap and in position to adjust to Blackman's $1.9 million salary. But ultimately New York president Dave Checketts and coach Pat Riley said no. Why? They looked at the comparative ages: Black-man turned 33 last week; Starks is 26. They looked at Starks's positive qualities: He's aggressive, a willing and able defender, and a versatile if not altogether consistent offensive player. (Riley sees him as another Michael Cooper, though that might be too optimistic.) And they looked at team chemistry, which is great right now. To them the deal didn't add up.

More mystifying, though, is the Mavs' apparent refusal to move Harper to the Clippers. To be sure, Harper is the heart and soul of the club, but the Clippers were reportedly offering three first-round draft choices (they own four first-round picks over the next two years). Dallas denies that the Clips' offer was that rich, but two league sources say it was. Perhaps the Mavs' decision was an indication that Dallas intends to keep Harper and gear most of its off-season effort toward trading Blackman in a deal that would truly help the team.

The Dread Injury

The careers of several NBA stars (Billy Cunningham and Doug Collins, to name two) were ended prematurely by the most feared of injuries: a tear of the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL), the knee's primary stabilizing ligament, which prevents hyperextension and excessive rotation of the joint (SI, April 29, 1991).

These days, though, an ACL tear no longer necessarily spells the end of a career; indeed, there is a proud group of ACL-tear survivors playing productively. Here's a look at the NBA's best-known ACL victims and how they're doing.

•Bernard King, Bullets. The first player to become an All-Star (in 1991) with a reconstructed ACL, King has not played this season after undergoing an operation in early September to repair torn cartilage in his right knee. That is his ACL knee, but this injury is not related to the ACL surgery performed in 1985. There is no doubt that his slower-than-expected return from the September procedure is partially because of past wear and tear on his 35-year-old knee.

•Mark Price, Cavaliers. Without much fanfare Price, the Cleveland point guard, on Feb. 9 became the second player to perform in an All-Star Game with a reconstructed ACL. Price was injured on Nov. 30, 1990, and returned less than a year later, about six weeks ahead of original projections. Like King, he worked slavishly during his rehab, but he also had a better chance for a near-complete recovery for two reasons: He suffered no accompanying cartilage damage in the knee, and his playing style is straight-ahead and distinctly below the rim.

•Johnny Dawkins, 76ers. He says he has recovered from the ACL tear of his right knee that forced him to miss virtually all of last season. But some observers feel he has lost some fearlessness in driving to the hoop.

•Larry Krystkowiak, Bucks. The Milwaukee forward is realistic about the damage done by the various ligament injuries to his left knee, which forced him to miss 66 games of the 1989-90 season and all of the regular season in '90-91. "You've got to have lost something, whether it's a couple inches off of your jump or whatever," says Krystkowiak, who adds that the injuries forced him to become a smarter player.

•Danny Manning, Clippers. Manning, who injured his right knee early in his rookie season of 1988-89, makes an excellent point about the ACL injury: "The strength comes back before the confidence does." Manning feels that he's just returning to his presurgery level of play. Others around the league aren't so sure.

•Ron Harper, Clippers. Harper says he can do most of the things he could do before the surgery on his right knee in January 1990—"just not at quite the same speed." He puts his recovery at 85%, both in terms of quickness and shot-making. "And me at 85 percent in the air is better than half the other players in the air," says Harper. But most observers believe that Harper has been far more limited by the ACL injury than any of the others.

Watch Your Back, Calvin!

One part of Price's game that has not been affected by his injury is his foul shooting. And if he continues at his present pace, here's a safe bet: On April 19, the last day of the regular season, Calvin Murphy will be openly pleading for Price to hurl up some bricks.

At week's end Price had converted 170 of his 177 free throws this season (.960). That puts him just a fraction ahead of Murphy's alltime season record of .958, established in the 1980-81 season, when he converted 206 of 215 freebies. Another of Murphy's marks—consecutive free throws made in one season (78, also during 1980-81)—has withstood two stiff challenges recently. Boston's Larry Bird faltered at 71 on Feb. 13, 1990, in Houston, and Seattle's Ricky Pierce was stopped at 75 in Boston Garden last Dec. 13. Murphy is not the typical sports legend who gives it the nonchalant, records-are-made-to-be-broken attitude. Murphy cares and, moreover, admits that he cares. His attitude is refreshing.

Price is attempting about four free throws per game, compared with Murphy's 2.8 in his record season. Indeed, most of the top single-season percentage shooters over one season did not get to the line even that often: Rick Barry (.947 in 1978-79) averaged 2.1 free throws per game, Ernie DiGregorio (.945 in 1976-77) averaged 1.8, and Ricky Sobers (.935 in 1980-81) averaged 3.5.

Professors of the Pine

Are the NBA's best coaches necessarily the ones with the most job security? In most cases, judging from the results of this week's SI poll, which asked coaches and general managers to identify the man they thought was the league's best bench coach (i.e., the one most adept at making changes and reacting to situations during the flow of the game). A coach could not vote for himself, nor could a general manager vote for his own guy.

Seven coaches received at least one vote, and five are considered to be reasonably secure in their jobs—for now, at least: Cotton Fitzsimmons (Suns), Phil Jackson (Bulls), Don Nelson (Warriors), Lenny Wilkens (Cavaliers) and Riley. Chuck Daly (Pistons) also was named, and should he part company with Detroit after the season, he will be offered another NBA job about five minutes later. Jimmy Lynam (76ers) was the final nominee, and he is most definitely swimming in choppy seas.

The winner? Not surprisingly, it was Nelson, who got eight of 24 votes. "Nellie gets you playing his game," said Pacer president Donnie Walsh. "Also, his game changes. He's got fast little people this season, and they run around the floor like crazy. But in the past he just pounded you with big people." And Hawk general manager Pete Babcock expanded that praise in voting for Nelson: "He has the best combination of abilities in dealing with players, motivating, reading situations in the game. His teams historically overachieve."

The runner-up? Score one for Lynam, who received four votes. Daly, Fitzsimmons and Jackson each had three votes, Wilkens got two, and Riley, who won four titles with the Lakers, netted only one.

PHOTOCARL SKALAKPrice (25) is back in stride after ACL surgery, but Dawkins (12) is a little further behind. PHOTOJOHN W. MCDONOUGHNelson makes his coaching points, according to the SI poll.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)